The widely differing definitions of who is eligible to repatriate to Israel as a Jew and who is considered a Jew by the religious establishment are creating a crisis of major proportions
Israeli news resource YNET is quoting an official document it had obtained from the Israeli office in charge of population and immigration statistics, which reports that around 180 thousand new immigrants came to Israel under the auspices of the Law of Return since 2012, but that only 14% of them are actually Jewish.
The Law of Return specifies that any person whose mother is Jewish or who has undergone an approved conversion is eligible to enter Israel and settle in it as a citizen. However, in order to allow Jewish repatriation from the USSR, the law was amended in 1970 to include those people whose parents were eligible under the original law and the spouses of any eligible person, even when they are not Jewish.
The reason for the amendment had to do with the nature of the Soviet Jewry, which had two different problems. First, the extreme upheavals of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the following civil war and soon thereafter the Second World War made archival data such as birth certificates and marriage certificates difficult to obtain as many if not most were lost. Second, the persecutions Jews were subjected to in the post-war USSR drove many to change their names and prefer marriage to Gentiles in order to hide their true identity.
This amendment resulted in what is estimated as 350 thousand non-Jews who repatriated under the Law of Return to be presently living in Israel. These people, all Israeli citizens, are recorded in Israeli official records as “other” under both the “nationality” the “religion” rubric and they cannot marry people who are recorded as Jews unless they do so outside of Israel.
Digging deeper into the data, among the 180 thousand repatriates the majority were from the Russian Federation and from Ukraine, among whom the fractions of actual Jews were 4.3% and 8%, respectively. Among repatriates from France, 27% were Jewish and from the US, 30%. Anecdotally, this likely means that only one third of American Jews are actually Jews, bringing the Jewish population of America closer to two million and not the oft spoken about six million.
Considering that these people are Israeli citizens and considering further that Israel is a country in which national and religious affiliation are officially recorded for each person, this disparity between definitions of Jewishness creates a significant minority whose registration rather than being, say Jewish/Jewish (as mine is) or Arab/Christian, is Other/Other.
All the while, these people speak Hebrew, serve in the IDF, and contribute in every way to Israeli society. Even more importantly, in a country that is substantially divided into Jews and everyone else, they see themselves firmly on the Jewish side of the ledger, even if officially they are not.
This situation, especially as it comes to the issue of marriage, is reaching crisis proportions and will have to be dealt with via some sort of mechanism sooner rather than later. One possibility would be mass conversions, a fairly rare, though not unprecedented event in Jewish history. Another would be the transfer of family law from the office of the Chief Rabbinate to the civil authorities. While the latter is anathema to the politically powerful religious sector in Israel, the former seems to be beyond the very limited capacity of the Chief Rabbis to innovate as their predecessors had done when the times demanded it.
One thing is certain: these hundreds of thousand of people who have cast their lot with Israeli Jews deserve to be counted among us not only defacto, but dejure and to quickly be granted full Jewish status in both the national and religious senses of the word.
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